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Traumatic everyday procedure imposes severe everlasting harm

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance

  • New York is the first U.S. state to ban cat declawing, a procedure technically known as onychectomy
  • Following the ban in New York, veterinarians who perform the procedure without a medical reason to do so may be fined up to $1,000
  • The New York bill allows for cat declawing only in cases where it’s medically necessary, such as for an injury, tumor or severe infection
  • Declawing has already been banned in many European countries along with certain Canadian provinces and U.S. cities, including Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles
  • Cat declawing involves amputating all or most of the last bone of each of the toes, severing tendons, nerves and ligaments — a painful procedure that can cause lasting physical and behavioral problems

New York is the first U.S. state to ban cat declawing, a procedure technically known as onychectomy. My hope is that ultimately every state in America will ban the procedure.

Following the ban in New York, veterinarians who perform the procedure without a medical reason to do so may be fined up to $1,000.1While cat declawing is sometimes regarded as a routine or minimal surgery, it’s painful and traumatic for cats, sometimes leading to behavioral and physical problems.

Declawing has already been banned in many European countries along with certain Canadian provinces and U.S. cities, including Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles.2 In signing the legislation (S.5532B/A.1303) banning declawing procedures on cats, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement:3

"Declawing is a cruel and painful procedure that can create physical and behavioral problems for helpless animals, and today it stops. By banning this archaic practice, we will ensure that animals are no longer subjected to these inhumane and unnecessary procedures."

Cat declawing should be called cat ‘de-toeing’

Cat declawing isn’t a simple procedure done to remove a cat’s nails, as many believe. Instead, it involves amputating all or most of the last bone of each of the toes, severing tendons, nerves and ligaments. This mutilation of a cat’s paws is painful, and while it’s difficult to say exactly how painful, given that cats tend to be stoic and do not readily reveal when they’re in pain, experts suggests the pain is severe.4

In addition to the pain that occurs at the time of the surgery, long-term pain may also result due to neuropathic pain, residual inflammation, infection or remain bone fragments. Declawed cats are also at increased risk of back pain, especially if bone fragments are left behind.5

Research published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery revealed that declawed cats were also more likely to bite, and those with retained bone fragments also tended to be more aggressive and engage in inappropriate elimination, behavioral issues that may be caused by lingering pain and discomfort caused by the procedure.6

“This study found that declaw surgery in cats was associated with a significant increase in the odds of developing adverse behaviors, including biting, barbering, aggression and inappropriate elimination, as well as signs of back pain,” the researchers concluded, adding, “Although cats receiving optimal surgical technique had fewer adverse outcomes and lower odds of these outcomes being present, these animals were still at increased odds of biting and undesirable habits of elimination as compared with non-surgical controls.”7

There’s also a risk that a cat’s claws can regrow after surgery, which is estimated to occur in 3% to 10% of cases. I’ve heard of a case in which the nail in a declawed cat regrew in a spiral inside the cat's leg, embedded in the flesh. It wasn't until the spiraled nail formed a mass the size of a ping pong ball and broke through the poor cat's wrist that anyone knew there was a problem.

Removing a cat’s claws also alters the way they move, potentially leading to lifelong ramifications. As noted in a statement from the New York governor’s press office, “After the claws are removed, cats often shift their gait and where it places most of its weight, causing strain on its leg joints and spine, which can lead to early onset arthritis and prolonged back and joint pain.”8

Cat declawing is rarely necessary

The New York bill allows for cat declawing only in cases where it’s medically necessary, such as for an injury, tumor or severe infection. Occasionally cats are born with toe defects that require the deformed remnant to be surgically removed. However, most cat owners seek out the procedure to eliminate property damage from a cat’s scratching — a natural and instinctive behavior for cats, by the way.

The fact is, it’s rarely medically necessary to remove a cat’s claws, and to do so for the purpose of saving your couch cushions is not only inhumane but ignores a primal part of a cat’s nature. Outdoor cats use their claws for hunting and capturing prey, self-defense and marking. Indoors, cats still have a strong drive to scratch, and should be given appropriate surfaces on which to do so.

New York assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal added, "Declawing is cruelty, plain and simple, and with so many low-cost and pain-free alternatives available, there is no reason to allow this barbaric practice to continue, not here in New York or anywhere. It's a wonderful day for the cats of the state and the people who love them. Now that my bill has become law, New York has been catapulted onto the leaderboard of humane states, and we expect other states to quickly follow in out footsteps."9

Let’s hope this is the case. Already, organizations such as the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) have come out against the practice. AAFP states that they “strongly oppose” declawing as an elective procedure and urges veterinarians to offer alternatives to declawing and educate cat owners on the realities of the procedure.10

How to stop problem scratching

If you’re considering declawing your cat, it’s probably because he’s scratching somewhere you’d prefer he did not. There are many options to stop this unwanted behavior that don’t involve amputating his toes. For starters, recognize that the goal is not to stop your cat from scratching, but to redirect his normal, healthy desire to scratch to an area where it’s appropriate.

Buy or make cat scratchers that will satisfy both your kitty's preferred scratching position and surface. Some cats like to scratch horizontally, while other prefer vertical scratching. Some cats like wood, others fabric and still others carpet or cardboard. It’s up to you to observe your kitty to find out what he likes best.

Next, place the scratches close to the area where your kitty likes to scratch most. If it’s the corner of your sofa, put it next to it, then rub the scratcher with catnip to attract your kitty.

Offer praise and treats when your cat uses the appropriate scratching spot. Meanwhile, you can discourage your cat from scratching your furniture by adding deterrents, such as aluminum foil, double-sided tape or plastic sheeting, which your cat probably won’t like. You can also spray a mist of lemon essential oil in spots you want to keep your cat away from, as most do not like the scent of citrus.

The most logical solution for sharp nails is to do your part as their guardian: Trim nails weekly! Just as human infants rely on you, their caretakers, to trim their nails to keep them safe, cats require the same nail care.

Keeping your cat’s claws trimmed will also help to minimize damage from scratching and actually help curb the desire to scratch because their nails are blunted. This is the most under-utilized, common sense way to protect your home and yourself against unwanted scratching, without a drastic and painful surgery.

It’s likely that more states will continue the trend in banning this inhumane procedure, but until they do, you can help look out for kitty welfare by not declawing your cat, and educating your friends and family about the reasons to avoid this harmful elective procedure.







 
 
     
 
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